bill bielby, wal-mart, and the interstices of public and policy sociology
In Dukes v. Wal-Mart, two million former and current female employees just cleared a major legal hurdle in their employment discrimination lawsuit. According to a 2009 article by Melissa Hart and Paul Secunda, the "social framework" testimony of sociologist Bill Bielby has played a pivotal role in the largest sex discrimination case in U.S. history.
Here's the latest from Workplace Profs:
Looks like a big win for the plaintiffs in the gigantic employment discrimination class action in Dukes v. Wal-Mart (a group of some 2 million former and current female employees have sued over lack of promotion opportunities). The 9th Circuit en banc, 6-5 with four separate opinions and 137 pages, affirmed class certification under Rule 23(b)(2) for some issues and remanded on others.
The expert testimony was especially important in obtaining class certification -- a huge issue in employment discrimination cases -- and clearing the case for trial. The news caught my eye as a friend of Bill, but also because his role in the case was noted in Michael Burawoy's famous 2004 American Sociological Association presidential address -- to illustrate how policy sociology differs from public sociology. From Burawoy:
Barbara Ehrenreich’s (2002) best-selling Nickel and Dimed—an ethnography of low-wage work that indicted, among others, Wal-Mart’s employment practices is an example of public sociology, whereas William Bielby’s (2003) expert testimony in the sexual discrimination suite against the same company would be a case of policy sociology. The approaches of public and policy sociology are neither mutually exclusive nor even antagonistic. As in this case they are often complementary.
In my view, one often blurs the public/policy boundary in practice (not to mention the public/policy/professional/critical lines). However we classify it, Professor Bielby shows how the conceptual and methodological tools of sociology can be put to practical use. Since a lot of our graduating majors are going on to law school, I might even pull a few quotes from Judge Hawkins' opinion in my li'l speech for sociology majors next week. How many sociological concepts can you spot in the following passage?
Plaintiffs presented evidence from Dr. William Bielby, a sociologist, to interpret and explain the facts that suggest that Wal-Mart has and promotes a strong corporate culture — a culture that may include gender stereotyping. Dr. Bielby based his opinion on, among other things, Wal-Mart managers’ deposition testimony; organizational charts; correspondence, memos, reports, and presentations relating to personnel policy and practice, diversity, and equal employment opportunity issues; documents describing the culture and history of the company; and a large body of social science research on the impact of organizational policy and practice on workplace bias.
Dr. Bielby testified that he employed a social framework analysis to examine the distinctive features of Wal-Mart’s policies and practices and evaluated them “against what social science shows to be factors that create and sustain bias and those that minimize bias.” In Dr. Bielby’s opinion, “social science research demonstrates that gender stereotypes are especially likely to influence personnel decisions when they are based on subjective factors, because substantial decisionmaker discretion tends to allow people to seek out and retain stereotyping-confirming information and ignore or minimize information that defies stereotypes.” Dr. Bielby concluded that: (1) Wal-Mart’s centralized coordination, reinforced by a strong organizational culture, sustains uniformity in personnel policy and practice; (2) there are significant deficiencies in Wal-Mart’s equal employment policies and practices; and (3) Wal-Mart’s personnel policies and practices make pay and promotion decisions vulnerable to gender bias.
While a jury may ultimately agree with Wal-Mart that, in the absence of a specific discriminatory policy promulgated by Wal-Mart, it is not more likely than not, based solely on Dr. Bielby’s analysis, that Wal-Mart engaged in actual gender discrimination, that question must be left to the merits stage of the litigation (and presumably will not have to be decided as there will be other evidence). At the class certification stage, it is enough that Dr. Bielby presented scientifically reliable evidence tending to show that a common question of fact — i.e., “Does Wal-Mart’s policy of decentralized, subjective employment decision making operate to discriminate against female employees?”— exists with respect to all members of the class.